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Euthanasia debate: Why the Catholic Church hides its face


euthanasia debate 2019

Prominent critics of assisted dying — including Bill English — won’t explain how much their religious views influence their opposition to a law change.

When I interviewed Peter Brown in 2013 about campaigning for his Death with Dignity Bill in 2003, he said his most influential opponents were the New Zealand Medical Association and the Catholic Church.

Since then, the NZMA’s influence in the assisted dying debate has dwindled alongside a fall-off in membership which means it now represents only 20 per cent of registered doctors in New Zealand

The Catholic Church, however, is still a major force in opposing David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill but it deliberately operates mostly behind the scenes. Often this is by encouraging the faithful to object to a law change but without revealing any religious motivation.

On Monday’s The AM Show, Duncan Garner was discussing assisted dying with visiting Canadian palliative care physician Dr Leonie Herx, and asked: “Are you a religious person?” 

She ducked for cover without answering the question. “This is not at all about religion for me,” she replied. “This is about a philosophy of caring as a human family.”

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That seems very unlikely. She is a devout Catholic, who has given public addresses at Catholic churches in Canada in opposition to assisted dying — including under the auspices of organisations such as the Calgary Catholic Medical Association, telling one audience, “Life is a gift from God.”

She was invited to New Zealand to oppose David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill by the Care Alliance. It was set up in 2012 by National MP Maggie Barry and John Kleinsman, spokesman for the Catholic bishops, to agitate against Maryan Street’s assisted dying bill.

As the interview with Herx was wrapping up, Garner said: “And your driver [between interviews] today is Bill English?… He’s opposed to it as well.”

Herx squirmed, clearly not wanting to be caught in that line of questioning.

As is well known, her chauffeur and former prime minister is also a devout Catholic, who similarly refuses to discuss how religious views influence his opposition to assisted dying.

In February, English admitted to Chris Lynch on Newstalk ZB that his views on assisted dying were “influenced by my religion” but he avoided answering specifically how that influence manifested itself. He quickly retreated to his standby position that the arguments he puts forward aren’t religious ones but rather legislative ones. He avoided Lynch’s persistent attempts to delve deeper. 

Last August, a Labour MP on the Justice select committee, Ginny Andersen, quizzed English after he had outlined his objections to the bill (without mentioning his religion) about how the committee should assess religious values expressed in submissions.

Andersen: “It has been interesting to see that the vast majority of those opposed to this bill have come to their views from a religious perspective, and a lot of their reasons and quotes have drawn upon religious beliefs as a reason to oppose the bill.

“I’d be interested in your advice [about] how we analyse these religious beliefs in the context of making a decision around how the bill should proceed.”

English asserted that a religious viewpoint was just another belief system. “I think the way you’d think about it is that everyone has a belief system… and religious ones are a bit more public and better specified and full of contradictions. But it’s not really a contest between religion and something else; it’s just an argument of different belief systems.”

He said the assisted dying debate was in part a debate between collectivism (a belief in the communal good) and autonomy (the rights of the individual).

His remarks, however, gloss over the significant role of the Catholic Church in opposing a law change and how intractable Church doctrine is on the issue.

First, the Catholic catechism makes it clear that the Church regards assisted dying or euthanasia as “murder, gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator”.

The Church also teaches that life is a gift from God that only He can interrupt — from conception to a “natural” death (which helps explain English’s hostility to both abortion and assisted dying).

In short, your life doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to God.

And to complete a trifecta of ideas that prevents Catholicism from being seen in this debate as “just another belief system” is the Church’s teaching that suffering is a means to sanctification, as a way of sharing Christ’s torture on the Cross.

According to Catholic theology, your painful death is a human sacrifice that helps win salvation for you and others.

As Father Jerome Lavigne said in 2015 in opening a church seminar at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Calgary, Canada, that featured Dr Herx in the speakers’ line-up: “All human suffering has purpose and meaning, and if we offer it up with him on the Cross it can help to redeem souls that some day we will meet in the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

I glimpsed the impact of Catholic views about suffering in 2007 after my sister died in a Brisbane hospital tied to a bed, screaming in agony from cancer in her lungs, breasts and spine after her pain management team lost control.

A devout Catholic I knew rang to say she had heard my sister had died in horrific pain and tried to console me by saying the good news was that her suffering hadn’t been pointless because she “wouldn’t have to spend much time in purgatory” — the place where anyone who isn’t going straight to hell is “purified” of unforgiven venial sins before being fit to face God.

She went on to explain that patiently enduring suffering on Earth is one way to cut your time in heaven’s ghastly ante-chamber.

In 2003, during the parliamentary debate on Peter Brown’s Death with Dignity Bill, Bill English talked up the benefits of watching someone suffer: “Pain is part of life, and watching it is part of our humanity. Many of us have become more human for watching it, whether or not we liked doing that.” 

He took a lot of flak for that, and since then he has been more circumspect about revealing any of his beliefs but it’s obvious why the Catholic Church can’t afford to show its face in the assisted dying debate. Most non-religious people would find these beliefs strange and deeply unpalatable, to say the very least.

No one I know who isn’t religious thinks suffering at the end of life is ennobling or enriching. They think it is pointless and cruel — and believe those who work to prevent legalising a humane alternative such as assisted dying are simply callous.

Aware that its views are hardly popular, the Catholic Church, both here and overseas, actively encourages its members to hide their religion in discussing the topic.

In New Zealand, bishops encouraged submitters to both the Health and Justice select committee inquiries to write in to object but advised them to “avoid religious and moralistic terms” that might expose other, deeper reasons for opposition. 

In Canada, Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry made it even more explicit in his address at the 2015 church meeting that featured Dr Herx as a speaker. He made it clear he didn’t want the Church’s role mentioned when members of the congregation made a public stand in opposition to assisted dying, which he strongly encouraged them to do.

At the end of his 30-minute address in which he railed against a “culture of death”, Bishop Henry exhorted his congregation to “speak up about [assisted dying]. We need to get involved [but] not necessarily as a representative of the Church.

“I do not want the opposition to physician-assisted suicide to be considered by the media as a ‘Catholic thing’. I think it is a ‘human thing’. And we have to do so in our own names, as members of this society.”

This of course is exactly the stance Dr Herx took in reply to Duncan Garner when she said: “This is not at all about religion for me. This is about a philosophy of caring as a human family.”

Dr Herx had obviously taken Bishop Henry’s edict to heart.

It’s a strange position, you might think, for any bishop to encourage his flock to deny Christ but Bishop Henry knows very well that these days his Church has virtually no moral authority outside its own dwindling congregations, given the avalanche of disastrous publicity it has received over the past few decades.

The shocking tally includes widespread child abuse committed by priests (whom the Church often spirits away to other parishes to continue their molestations); nuns being raped by priests (and some being forced to have abortions); a Vatican network of gay senior office holders who nevertheless continue to publicly condemn homosexual acts by their congregations; and unwed mothers having been subject to appalling abuse in homes for “fallen women”.

Given the widespread antipathy to the Church, if Catholic priests and bishops fronted their campaign against assisted dying on television, radio and social media themselves using religious arguments, much of the public would be outraged, if not repulsed.

So the push by the Church to defeat proposed legislation is largely left to lay members. Religion virtually never gets mentioned and, if it is, the topic is brushed aside.

No one is arguing that Catholics, or devotees of any religion, don’t have an absolute right to hold and express whatever view they like on assisted dying. That is what freedom of religion means, no matter how much their views may offend or upset other people.

However, if they don’t put all their cards on the table when discussing assisted dying, it is impossible to know whether they are arguing in good faith or not.

Most significantly, the people I know who are in favour of assisted dying are willing to modify their beliefs as evidence is presented to them.

However, someone who believes assisted dying is murder; that only God can interrupt a human life; and that suffering is a path to salvation is never going to agree to any change in the law, no matter how many safeguards are set up or how much evidence from other jurisdictions shows the practice is safe or free of abuse — as it overwhelmingly does.

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